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Evangelicals Flock Into Iraq on a Mission of Faith

Christian missionaries hope to save souls, but risk losing their lives and weakening stability.

March 18, 2004|Charles Duhigg | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — An American missionary proudly watches as a sea of Iraqi arms rise in witness to Jesus Christ and choruses of "Amen" compete with distant rattles of gunfire. The faithful sing familiar Christian hymns in Arabic, their voices bouncing off the shipping containers that protect the church from car bombs.

Every Sunday, more than 400 Iraqis travel to this well-to-do neighborhood far from the protection of an American base to worship in the National Biblical Christian Federation Church. Converted from Islam and from other branches of Christianity, they are the first ripple of a tidal wave that evangelical leaders pray will inundate the Middle East.

"I learned about Jesus and eternal life from a friend, and came to this church to see," said Rana Atass, who has attended weekly services at another church for the last month. Her mother, bearing facial tattoos as some Iraqi women do, stood in a line of congregants to ask church leaders for help in buying food.

"The music is very enthusiastic here," Atass said. "They promise Jesus will solve many problems."

At least nine evangelical churches have opened in Baghdad in the last eight months, many supported by American organizations contributing up to $100,000 per church. More than 900,000 Bibles in Arabic -- along with hundreds of tons of food and medical supplies -- have been sent to Iraq. About 30 Christian evangelical missionaries are working in Baghdad, and 150 others have visited since last summer. Some Christian groups focus on offering aid and avoid proselytizing.

These missionaries' humanitarian and religious labors are fraught with peril. Four Americans affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention were killed and one was critically injured Monday after gunmen opened fire on their vehicle in Mosul, north of Baghdad. A spokesman for the International Mission Board said the Americans had been scouting locations for humanitarian and evangelical work.

An influential Shiite Muslim leader, Sheik Fatih Kashif Ghitaa, said, "Iraqis already see the American occupation as a religious war." Ghitaa said Shiite and Sunni clerics have discussed issuing a fatwa, or religious edict, against missionaries.

The missionaries -- a mix of professional proselytizers and novices with little or no preparation -- are buoyed by President Bush's evangelical bent, his oft-repeated biblical references and his vision of freedom spreading out from a saved Iraq.

"God and the president have given us an opportunity to bring Jesus Christ to the Middle East," said Tom Craig, an independent American missionary working in Iraq and Cyprus. "This is my commandment. No amount of danger will stop me."

The Colorado Springs-based Christian and Missionary Alliance helped turn the National Biblical Christian Federation Church into a beachhead of Western Christian prayer eight months ago, intensifying a clash of civilizations that has consumed the Middle East for centuries. As the U.S. prepares to return sovereignty to Iraqis on June 30, amid violence and anti-American demonstrations, the stakes have never been higher.

"Iraq will become the center for spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ to Iran, Libya, throughout the Middle East," said Kyle Fisk, executive administrator of the National Assn. of Evangelicals, which represents 4.5 million Christians in the United States.

"President Bush said democracy will spread from Iraq to nearby countries," Fisk said. "A free Iraq also allows us to spread Jesus Christ's teachings even in nations where the laws keep us out."

Iraqi political leaders worry that evangelical efforts will undermine the nation's stability.

"Extremists, whether Muslims or evangelicals, inspire violence and hatred," said Mahmoud Othman, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council. "The newspapers are screaming about a Christian conspiracy."

The four killed Monday were the most recent missionary casualties. A Rhode Island pastor was killed on St. Valentine's Day when gunmen opened fire as he and five companions traveled south of Baghdad. Three American missionaries working in a hospital in Yemen were killed by a gunman in December 2002, and a female American missionary was shot dead in Lebanon the month before while working in an evangelical medical clinic.

Missionaries say their work is bringing freedom to Iraq.

"We don't force Jesus Christ's love on anyone," said Darrell Phenicie, an American missionary who teaches theology in Baghdad. "Doesn't freedom of religion mean the right to learn about other choices?"

Evangelical churches were illegal under Saddam Hussein, although Iraq's 300,000 nonevangelical Christians were permitted to practice. Proselytizing is banned in most Middle East nations, but Fisk and other evangelical leaders hope to train Iraqi missionaries to work discreetly in other Arab countries.

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